Democracy, Pluralism and
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed
(Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is the Director of the American Institute of Islamic
History and Culture, located at 1160 Ridgemont Place, Concord, CA 94521.
Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is a thinker, author, writer, legislator and an
academician. Professionally he is an Engineer and holds several Patents
in Engineering. He is the author of several books; prominent among them
is "Islam in Global History." He can be reached by E-mail:
Democracy is the slogan of our times. The Americans use it. The Russians
use it. The Indians and Pakistanis use it. The Europeans and the Chinese
use it. In a discussion, to be on the side of democracy is "good". To be
against it is "bad". The Americans in particular, have set out to shape
the world in their own image. We are on record as declaring that we will
bring democracy to the world. No other enterprise in human history, no
empire and no conqueror had such an audacious plan. The Romans did not
attempt it. Chengiz Khan did not attempt it. The British did not attempt
it. Neither did the Turks.
It is so say the least, a grandiose first in history. Somewhere in this
debate, the global context of the times is lost. What relevance does
local governance, democratic or undemocratic, have in a shrinking world
ruled by multinational corporations? Can the European model, wherein an
entire continent is drawn together in the European Union, be extended to
other regions or perhaps even other continents? If so, what does
democracy mean in a multinational state? Ask a common man what democracy
is. An overwhelming majority will say that it is rule by the majority.
If you attended school and learned by rote, you will quote: "Democracy
is rule by the people, of the people, for the people". The
contradictions in these positions are obvious if you are a minority.
Even in seasoned democracies such as the United States, access to
political power is not available to the average Joe.
One has to be rich, well connected or well known to climb the political
ladder. In India, where the political gates are more open, democracy is
good, meaning it is good for the politicians. The argument is not
against democracy. Indeed, democracy is the best idea on the table when
the issue is governance. Self-governance is the best governance. The
argument is how to apply democracy so that it is rule by all the people,
of all the people, and for all the people, and not just for some of the
people. Stated another way, in a shrinking world everyone is a minority.
The Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, they are all minorities. The
Germans, the Chinese, the Indonesians and Senegalese are all global
minorities. How does one apply democracy so that it reflects the will of
all of these "minorities"? Even in a local context, how does one ensure
that the rights of the minorities, the less privileged, or the
subservient groups are honored? It is an age-old question, as old as
democracy itself. In modern times, with large segments of humankind
experimenting with multinational states, this question is even more
In a continental Europe, for instance, how does one ensure that citizens
of Monaco have the same say as the citizens of Germany? Should Turkey
join the European community, will the large Turkish population dominate
a European parliament? Democracy cannot just be rule by a simple
majority. In its application, it must design political structures,
invent and establish institutions, formulate laws, enforce checks and
balances, so that the will of all the people is reflected in the process
of governance. Muslims have struggled with these issues since the time
of the Prophet. In the next few articles, we will provide a brief
historical survey of these attempts. Included in this survey are
examples from the life of the Prophet, and of Omar bin al Khattab, Omar
bin Abdel Azeez, Harun ar Rasheed, Nasiruddin al Tusi, Sulaiman Qanooni,
Jalaluddin Akbar, Ahmed Sirhindi and Mohammed Iqbal.
These examples will throw some light on how the relationships between
Muslims and non-Muslims were tackled, and the rights of religious and
cultural minorities honored, in situations when Muslims were in power
and when they were not. We will also briefly touch upon the models of
democracy as visualized by Thomas Jefferson and the French philosopher
Rousseau. Very little work has been done by Muslim thinkers to define
what it means to be a Muslim when you are a minority, especially a
minority in a democratic setup. There is no Muslim minority fiqh, as
such. At the outset it pays to formulate the question correctly. By the
word democracy, do we mean rule by the majority? Is the issue
self-governance or governance under a super-ordinate law, such as the
Shariah? Or is it the overall wellbeing (falah) of the people
irrespective of the nature of rule? History is a great teacher.
Hopefully, the lessons from the examples cited here will provide some
insights for further reflections and further work. Models of pluralism
The Treaty of Hudaibiya was the first formal treaty between Muslims and
non-Muslims. The Prophet personally dictated the terms for a cessation
of hostilities between Mecca and Medina.
The rights of access to the Ka'ba were established and prisoners were
exchanged except that the Prophet in his wisdom permitted Muslim
prisoners to stay behind so they could preach. The principle behind
Hudaibiya was freedom of worship. Believing and non-believing societies
could coexist in peace as long freedom of worship was guaranteed.
However, there were limits to the Treaty as well. Hudaibiya was not an
inclusive model of pluralism, in the modern sense. There were no
reciprocal rights (of citizenship) for Muslims and non-Muslims across
the borders in Mecca and Medina. Muslims through the ages have looked to
Hudaibiya as a model from which to seek inspiration and evolve
corresponding models for their interaction with non-Muslims. As late as
the 1950s, when the devastation of partition had settled down, and the
large Muslim minority in India looked for conceptual models to
participate in a democratic but predominantly non-Muslim society, the
Jamaat e Islami headed by Maulana Maudoodi offered Hudaibiya as a model
for the Muslims of India.
The Maudoodi model was defective in its concept and its execution. The
Muslims in India were citizens of a modern nation by birth. Legally,
they were rulers as well as the ruled, albeit as a religious minority.
The Jamaat contested in the first elections in India in the early 1950s
on their platform and was thoroughly repudiated, even by the Muslims.
The Treaty of Hudaibiya established the acceptability and desirability
of peace and of a formal treaty between a Muslim and a non-Muslim state
where there was freedom of worship. It opened the possibility of
discourse, mutual accommodation and dialogue between Muslim and
non-Muslim societies. The norms, modalities and processes of such
discourse as well as the structures for participation of Muslims as full
partners in non-Muslim frameworks were to be worked out by future
generations. The wisdom behind this example of the Sunnah, as in so many
other examples, was to establish the Shariah as a dynamic and unfolding
process so that future generations had the latitude and the freedom to
successfully negotiate the turbulent waves of history.
Democracy is the battle cry of our times. It is played to the
accompaniment of different drumbeats: capitalist, socialist,
nationalist, internationalist, Islamic, Western, Eastern, Mid-Eastern,
and plain old mumbo jumbo. As a slogan it is old and it is new. The
Greeks invented it. The Arabs expanded on it. The French developed it.
And today, just about everyone talks about it. It is at once the
political shield and the political dagger of our times.
Some nations that cry out the loudest for democracy practice something
less that what they preach. The British constitution, for instance,
stipulates that the head of the British state be a Christian. As for the
French, their historical claims to raising the banner of liberty and
equality during the French Revolution did not prevent them from
butchering more than a million Algerians during the war of Algerian
independence in the early 1960s.
In the first part of this article we pointed out that the issue here is
representative and responsive government. In a shrinking planet, the
issue becomes even more acute as nations yield their traditional powers
to multinational corporations and international banks. The Islamic
world, in particular has been taken to the docks for its poor record on
the democratic front. This article is an attempt to take a historical
look at how Muslims through the ages have tried to live up to the ideals
of representative and responsive government in pluralistic frameworks.
It is our hope that this brief effort may shed some light on the
contemporary state of the Islamic world.
Omar ibn al Khattab (r)
No other person after the Prophet influenced Islamic history as much as
did Omar ibn al Khattab (r). He was the historical figure who
institutionalized Islam and determined the manner in which Muslims would
relate to each other and to non-Muslims. What the Muslims did, and did
not do in later centuries, was largely shaped by this giant among the
Companions of the Prophet. Omar (r), elected by consultations among the
people of Medina after the death of Abu Bakr (r), inherited an ongoing
conflict with the Byzantine and the Persian Empires. When the test of
arms was over, both of these mighty empires had been vanquished and the
Arabs were the masters of territories extending from the Nile to the Amu
This vast region was inhabited by Copts, Christians, Zoroastrians,
Buddhists and polytheists. There was the urgent need to govern these
diverse people and Omar (r) was more than match for the challenge. Omar
(r) treated the conquered people with unsurpassed magnanimity. The
surrender document signed with the Christians upon the conquest of
Jerusalem provides an example: "This is the safety given by the servant
of God, the leader of the faithful, Omar ibn al Khattab to the people of
Their safety is for their life, property, church and cross, for the
healthy and the sick and for all their co-religionists. Their churches
shall neither be used in residence nor shall they be demolished. No harm
be done to their churches or their boundaries. There shall be no
decrease in their crosses or riches. There shall neither be any
compulsion in religion nor shall they be harmed". The document speaks
for itself and the cordial relations between Christians and Muslims in
Jerusalem even to this day are a testimony to the legacy of Omar (r).
It was during the Caliphate of Omar (r) that Islamic jurisprudence and
its methodologies were fully established. The edicts of Omar (r), often
given by Ali ibn Abu Talib (r), but always reflecting the consensus of
the Companions, provided the foundation for the Maliki School of fiqh
that emerged a hundred years later. Omar(r) followed the example of the
Prophet in his administration of a pluralistic empire. The Prophet had
established the principle of autonomy in his interactions with the
Christians and the Jews of Medina. Omar (r) extended this principle to
include the Copts, the Zoroastrians and the Buddhists. Each community
was accorded full autonomy within the laws of that community.
Thus the Copts were judged by their own laws and the Zoroastrians by
their own. When there was a dispute between members of different
communities, then the Islamic law was applied. The non-Muslims were
considered the responsibility (dhimma or zimma) of the Muslims for their
protection and their well-being. The Muslims took their responsibility
under the principle of dhimmi seriously.
In return for a nominal tax, the jizya, which was often less than the
zakat mandatory for the Muslims, the non-Muslims were exempted from
military service if they so chose to, and were accorded full protection
of the state. If they served in the armed forces, as did the Christian
tribes of Western Iraq during the Persian campaigns, they were exempted
from the jizya. The practice of jizya was misapplied and misunderstood
by later generations and was often accused as discriminatory to
non-Muslims. In summary, at the onset of Islamic history, the head of
state, the Caliph, was elected by mutual consultation. He was neither a
monarch nor a dictator but was subject to the law, namely, the Shariah.
The different communities enjoyed complete autonomy and were governed by
their own laws. They were given full protection of the state and were
exempt from military service if they so chose to, in return for the
payment of a nominal tax. This model was used by Muslim dynasties in one
form or the other until modern times.
Omar bin Abdel Azeez
Of all the Omayyads, Omar bin Abdel Azeez stands out as the one who
lived up to the ideals of the Companions in reaching out to different
groups within the Islamic state. He became the Caliph by a coincidence
of history. When the Omayyad Emir Sulaiman (714-717) lay on his death
bed, he was advised that he could earn the pleasure of God by following
the example of the early Caliphs, by nominating someone other than his
own sons as the new Emir. He therefore dictated that Omar bin Abdel
Azeez, a distant cousin, was to succeed him. Omar bin Abdel Azeez set to
reform the entire political, social and cultural edifice of the empire.
Upon hearing of his nomination, he immediately set his confirmation as
subject to the will of the people. "O People!" he declared, "the
responsibilities of the Caliphate have been thrust upon me without my
consent or your desire. If you chose to elect someone else as the
Caliph, I will immediately step aside and will support your decision".
He was a democrat by disposition. The Omayyad emirs had become
accustomed to a lavish life style. They had no accountability to the
treasury. They collected exorbitant taxes from Persia and Egypt and
compelled traders to sell them their merchandise at discount prices.
Political appointees received gifts of gold and silver in return for
favors. Contrary to the injunctions of the Shariah, even though some
people in the territories had accepted Islam, they continued to pay the
jizya. Some provincial governors had turned into local tyrants.
The case of Hajjaj bin Yusuf, the governor of Basra, is a well-known
one. Omar abolished such practices, punished corrupt officials and
established strict accountability. Reaching out to the Copts of Egypt
and the Zoroastrians of Persia, he lowered their taxes and brought them
in line with those paid by resident Arabs. The local population
responded with enthusiastic support of the new Caliph. Production
increased. Ibn Kathir records that thanks to the reforms undertaken by
Omar, the annual revenue from Persia alone increased from 28 million
dirham to 124 million dirham. It was the just rule of Omar bin Abdel
Azeez that accelerated the conversion process in Persia and Egypt and it
was during his rule that these pivotal parts of the Mid East became
When the officials complained that because of conversions, the jizya
revenues of the state had experienced a step decline, Omar wrote back
saying that he had accepted the Caliphate to invite people to the path
of Islam and not to become a tax collector. Omar's reach extended not
just to non-Muslims in the territories, but also to extremist groups
among the Muslims themselves. He even extended his hand to the
Kharijites. According to Ibn Kathir, he wrote to the Kharijite leader
Bostam, inviting him to an open discussion about the Caliphate of Othman
(r) and Ali (r). He went so far as to stipulate that should Bostam
convince him, Omar would willingly repent and change his ways.
Bostam sent two of his emissaries to the Caliph. During the discussions,
one of the emissaries accepted that Omar was right and gave up Kharijite
extremism. The other went back unconvinced. Even so, the Caliph did not
persecute the man. Thus the reign of Omar bin Abdel Azeez, cast in the
model of early Islam, was marked by fairness to non-Arabs and
non-Muslims and a dialogue with dissenters, even with the extremists.